Transition…Tom Proch -June 2015

from Top Chef to Top Teacher

by: Terry Pommett

photography by: Terry Pommett

For 29 years, Tom Proch was the culinary genius at The Club Car,

Joe Pantorno’s iconic island restaurant, named after the dining car that was once part of Nantucket’s shortlived railroad. But that all changed last fall when Proch switched careers and said goodbye to his role as executive chef at one of the island’s top restaurants and hello to his new position as instructor in the culinaryarts program at Nantucket High School, teaching students how to cook and preparing them for culinary school when they graduate.

Cooking has been in Proch’s blood since he was a child. His mother was an excellent cook and there was always something going on in the kitchen.

“The action and camaraderie when things got going was really exciting for me,” he said. It led to his enrollment at Providence’s Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts. That opened some doors for him, eventually leading to an interview with the late Chick Walsh at Nantucket’s legendary Opera House restaurant in 1983.

“My first professional position was as a roundsman, which meant I’d rotate from station to station. It was perfect, I learned a lot,” Proch said.

He learned to cook under pressure, tackling two full seatings every night in a tiny elbow-to-elbow kitchen. There were just a handful of gourmet restaurants on the island at the time, but one of the best was just around the corner at The Club Car, featuring the cuisine of Michael Shannon, which is where he landed after leaving the Opera House. He remembers the interview with Shannon clearly, such that it was.

“It wasn’t much of an interview. Just put on an apron and go to work. Shannon would know within a half hour if I could cut it. He was a real icon, and his wrath was well known. I figured if I did everything he told me, I’d have it made,” Proch said.

He still smiles when thinking back to how impressed he was with the artistry of the Irish chef.

“Shannon was trained in Lyons and has cooked all over the world. His sauces are simply the greatest demi-glaces I’ve ever tasted. His veal stock was liquid gold. Endless stories of his travels got me inspired as well. I ended up traveling to many of the same places he did. And I loved learning the classic French cuisine with all the names that have histories behind them. Sole Veronique, Scampi Dijonnais, Beef Wellington, and on and on. And it wasn’t that he stood there and gave me his recipes, I had to look over his shoulder and observe in order to get what I wanted,” he said.

One of the reasons Proch and Shannon got along so well is they had similar tastes and approaches to cooking.

“The preparations of the dishes become ingrained in your head. Training long enough prepares you to cook by feel and taste, not by recipe. You don’t just make something and then say, that’s it. You have to taste it as you go and taste it every time you make it,” Proch said.

By the mid 1990s Shannon had enough confidence in Proch that he decided to work prep during the day and let Proch take over at night. The clientele didn’t realize the switch had been made, so well had the student learned the trade from the master.

“People would send drinks back to the kitchen for Shannon, not knowing he was already at home with his feet up. When word finally got out that Shannon wasn’t behind the line any more, customers started thinking ‘Oh, it’s not the same anymore.’ But they had been eating my food for six or seven years assuming it was Shannon,” Proch said.

Once Proch took over as chef de cuisine, he would always run nightly specials. But the classic dishes like the Rack of Lamb with Mint Madeira Sauce, Striped Bass with Lobster Sauce, the Crab Cakes and Shrimp Scampi were left untouched. He couldn’t see them getting any better. He learned from Shannon the dish begins with top-quality ingredients. That was mandatory.

“I remember seeing him once throw a case of inferior tomatoes at a purveyor and you could have heard him yelling all the way to the top of Main Street,” Proch said.

Although basic menu items and the physical appearance of The Club Car didn’t change much during Proch’s tenure, that’s not to say he wasn’t innovative during that time. He filled two spiral notebooks each season with his nightly specials. There was a time when the island restaurant scene was very experimental and he tried to do more things to make a dish interesting. But he came to realize that it’s better to keep things simple and stick to the classic French style.

“The same people have been coming to The Club Car for three or four decades. They know what to expect and what they want. I could tell who was in the dining room just by reading the order slips,” Proch said.

One of his pleasures was creating dishes no one else was doing, like stuffed veal heart, calves’ brains or sweetbreads. The patés and terrines were his signature dishes as well. How about the ACK and Cheese, a twist on a comfort-food favorite, only this one was a truffle cheese sauce tossed with ditalini and chunks of lobster meat in a beurre blanc sauce. A summertime specialty was black mission figs with a piece of truffle inside wrapped in prosciutto, roasted quickly with micro greens, truffle oil and fig syrup.

The summer of 2014 was Proch’s last season at The Club Car. His two children were in high school and he had never spent much quality family time with them in the summer. Soon they’d be out of the house and gone. By coincidence an opportunity arose to take over the culinary-arts program in the fall at the high school. It was great timing.

“Everything fell into place. It hurt to leave the restaurant, but I wanted to get out while I still loved the work, not when I felt like I had to get out. Now I’m learning to be a teacher and I enjoy it a lot. I can see myself devoting at least the next decade to the job,” Proch said.

While Proch has taught professionals in the restaurant for years, it’s not the same teaching a group of students on the first rung of the culinary ladder. He has to take it slow and use the Shannon approach, filling their heads with stories of travel and dishes he learned from different places. He mixes the current curriculum with one of his own choosing and eschews textbooks to a certain degree.

“It can be quite a challenge when you’re facing 14 teenagers with burners and bowls of eggs learning how to make an omelette,” he said.

In addition to his two culinary-arts classes, he runs a nutrition class. He raised a lot of eyebrows when he told the class there is nothing wrong with junk food if you make it yourself. He then showed them how to take a chicken breast, dredge it in panko crumbs, fry it in canola oil, and prepare a fresh dipping sauce. They were amazed.

One experiment was designed to show how shopping the peripheries of a supermarket was much healthier than walking down the center aisles picking one box of processed food after another. To illustrate his point, he made apple strudel in class and compared it with the frozen toaster strudel his students were familiar with. They put each on a plate, covered them and left them sitting for a month. When they took off the covers, the homemade strudel had mold from bacteria all over it. The toaster strudel hadn’t changed appearance. The conclusion: “If bacteria didn’t recognize it as food, why would you want to eat it?”

These innovative methods to teaching get Proch excited. He tells his students that even if only a few of them go on to become chefs, his goal is still to teach them how to cook for themselves and their family, a valuable life skill.

Proch isn’t ready to completely hang up his apron in the summer. After 32 years cooking professionally, he hopes to do private dinners at homes, most likely taking along one of his students as a helper. And he plans on pursuing his other passion, singing and playing the drums in his band, Cranberry Alarm Clock.

“Who knows, I might get hired to cook a dinner and then provide some musical entertainment as well," he said. ///

Terry Pommett is a photojournalist who splits his time between Nantucket and the Philippines.

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